The SEC has announced its fiscal 2022 Enforcement stats, which hit new records. According to the press release, during the year, the SEC filed 760 total enforcement actions, representing a 9% increase over the prior year. That total included 462 new, or “stand-alone,” enforcement actions, which “ran the gamut of conduct, from ‘first-of-their-kind’ actions to cases charging traditional securities law violations.” The SEC also recovered a record $6.4 billion in civil penalties, disgorgement and pre-judgment interest in SEC actions, an increase of 68% from $3.8 billion in the prior year. Civil penalties, at $4.2 billion, were also the highest on record. The press release emphasized that the increase in penalties is intended to “deter future misconduct and enhance public accountability.” In a number of cases, the SEC “recalibrated penalties for certain violations, included prophylactic remedies, and required admissions where appropriate” to make “clear that the fines were not just a cost of doing business.” According to Director of Enforcement Gurbir Grewal, the SEC doesn’t “expect to break these records and set new ones each year because we expect behaviors to change. We expect compliance.” Interestingly, disgorgement, at $2.2 billion, declined 6% from last year. As reported by the WSJ, Grewal, speaking at a recent conference, highlighted the fact that the SEC imposed more penalties than disgorgements, which, in his view, “demonstrated that ‘the potential consequences of violating the law are significantly greater than the potential rewards.’… He added that the SEC ordered more than twice as much in disgorgements as it did in penalties for the five fiscal years before the last one. ‘So while disgorgement was slightly down from the prior year…it is the first time that the amount ordered to be paid in penalties has been double the amount ordered to be paid in disgorgement,’ he said. ‘The increased penalty-to-disgorgement ratio nonetheless demonstrates that the risk-reward calculation is not what it was even a few years ago.’”
As described in this press release, the SEC has filed a complaint against Vale S.A., a publicly traded (NYSE) Brazilian mining company and one of the world’s largest iron ore producers, charging that it made “false and misleading claims about the safety of its dams prior to the January 2019 collapse of its Brumadinho dam. The collapse killed 270 people, caused immeasurable environmental and social harm, and led to a loss of more than $4 billion in Vale’s market capitalization.” The SEC alleged that Vale “fraudulently assured investors that the company adhered to the ‘strictest international practices’ in evaluating dam safety and that 100 percent of its dams were certified to be in stable condition.” Significantly, these statements were contained, not just in Vale’s SEC filings, but also, in large part, in its sustainability reports. According to Gurbir Grewal, Director of Enforcement, “[m]any investors rely on ESG disclosures like those contained in Vale’s annual Sustainability Reports and other public filings to make informed investment decisions….By allegedly manipulating those disclosures, Vale compounded the social and environmental harm caused by the Brumadinho dam’s tragic collapse and undermined investors’ ability to evaluate the risks posed by Vale’s securities.” Notably, the press release refers to the SEC’s Climate and ESG Task Force formed last year in the Division of Enforcement “with a mandate to identify material gaps or misstatements in issuers’ ESG disclosures, like the false and misleading claims made by Vale.” The SEC’s charges arising out of this horrific accident are a version of “event-driven” securities litigation—brought this time, not by shareholders, but by the SEC.
On Tuesday, the SEC announced settled charges against Baxter International Inc., its former Treasurer and Assistant Treasurer, for misconduct related to improper intra-company foreign exchange transactions that resulted in the misstatement of the company’s net income. From at least 1995 to 2019, the SEC alleged, Baxter converted foreign-currency-denominated transactions and assets and liabilities on its financial statements using its own “convention”—not in accordance with U.S. GAAP. Then, beginning around 2009, the SEC charged, Baxter leveraged the convention to devise a series of non-operating intra-company foreign exchange transactions “for the sole purpose of generating foreign exchange accounting gains or avoiding foreign exchange accounting losses.” In the order against Baxter, the SEC found that the company violated the negligence-based anti-fraud, public reporting, books and records, and internal accounting controls provisions of the federal securities laws and imposed an $18 million penalty. In this order and this order, the SEC found that the company’s Treasurer “did not take any steps to investigate how Baxter’s treasury department generated consistent gains or whether the transactions that generated the gains were permissible,” and that the Assistant Treasurer, working with others at his direction, was “primarily responsible for executing the transactions.” The Treasurer and Assistant Treasurer were determined to have violated the negligence-based anti-fraud provisions of the federal securities laws and to have caused Baxter’s public reporting and books and records violations.
No, it’s not an episode of Top Chef, but it is about “cooking the books.” And those are just some of the ingredients and tools used by Brixmor Property Group, a publicly traded REIT, and four of its executives to do the cooking: manipulation of a key non-GAAP financial measure, according to this SEC complaint and order and, even more to the point, this SDNY criminal indictment of the executives. As alleged, management sought to create the impression that a static pool of its existing properties showed steady and predictable income growth across a number of quarters. In contrast, however, Brixmor’s actual income growth rate was “volatile and frequently fell above or below the company’s publically issued guidance range” for the period. So, according to the order, the company architected the desired illusion—touted as its “secret sauce”—by engaging in some “sausage-making” with regular hits to the “cookie jar.” While it doesn’t sound very appetizing, it did create the desired deception—until, of course, it didn’t. The lesson is that manipulation of a non-GAAP measure, together with violations of GAAP, to mislead the public can be trouble—and perhaps even criminal. Although cases of accounting fraud may not be as common as they once were, this case should serve as a reminder that the SEC and the Justice Department are still on the lookout for it.
SCOTUS finds primary securities fraud liability for disseminating statements made by others with intent to defraud
Last week, SCOTUS decided Lorenzo v. SEC, a case involving a claim that an investment banker was liable for securities fraud when, at the direction of his boss, he cut, pasted and disseminated to potential investors information that his boss had provided, even though the banker knew the information was false. In a 2011 case, Janus Capital Group, Inc. v. First Derivative Traders, SCOTUS had held that, an “investment adviser who had merely ‘participat[ed] in the drafting of a false statement’ ‘made’ by another could not be held liable in a private action under subsection (b) of Rule10b–5.” (Rule 10b–5(b) prohibits the “mak[ing]” of “any untrue statement of a material fact.”) In Lorenzo, the question before the Court was whether a person who did not “make” statements (that is, who did not have “ultimate authority” over the statements), but who knowingly disseminated false statements to potential investors with intent to defraud, could be found to have violated subsections (a) and (c) of Rule 10b–5. The answer, in an opinion written by Justice Breyer, was yes. Will this case embolden plaintiff’s counsel to push the envelope and assert claims against people who are only peripherally involved in the dissemination of allegedly false information? Time will tell what the ultimate impact of this case may be.
by Cydney Posner In October 2013, SEC Chair Mary Jo White gave a speech at the Securities Enforcement Forum in which she declared an “enforcement mission” of the SEC to be implementation of the “broken windows” theory of crime deterrence made famous decades ago in NYC: “The [‘broken windows’] theory is […]
Stinging dissent by Commissioner Aguilar: Is the SEC making fraudulent behavior look like an innocent mistake?
by Cydney Posner Following on the heels of a case, discussed in this post, in which a CEO and CFO were charged with internal control and books and records violations (but no typical financial statement fraud allegation), comes another case against a CEO and CFO that likewise concluded with violations of […]